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Our Holy Ground

November 10, 2019 the book of Haggai

This is a first for me. I will confess I have never preached from the book of Haggai. And I’m curious, do any of you remember hearing a sermon about the prophet Haggai? Another confession, a couple of weeks ago if you had asked me to say a little bit about Haggai, I would have stared at you blankly. I could have told you he was a minor Old Testament prophet and not much more. But one of our lectionary texts for today is from Haggai, actually the only Haggai reference in the entire three year cycle and somehow it caught my attention. Obviously, I needed to do some serious reading in this book of the Bible, but as it is the second shortest Old Testament book at only two chapters long, this didn’t represent a serious time commitment. Yet despite its brevity, it’s divided into five tiny sections covering just a few months. If we align the Babylonian lunar calendar with our present-day calendar, we see that Haggai is actively speaking from around the end of August to the middle of December in 520bc (Interpretation Commentary, Achtemeier). According to our Biblical record, Haggai is a prophet for only 3.5 months but in that short time his admonitions and encouragements are significant enough to land him in our canon. Pretty sure there’s another entire sermon down that track.

What is happening in 520bc that has Haggai all worked up? A little bit of a history. A few weeks ago, I talked about the Babylonian Exile, when all the prominent Jewish citizens are forced from their homes into Babylon and in the year 586bc the city of Jerusalem is destroyed, the temple is razed. Then in 539, almost 50 years later, Babylon falls to Persia and the King of Persia, Cyrus, allows the Jews to begin returning to Judah, to Jerusalem. It would be hard to imagine the excitement these Jews take with them as at long last, they begin returning to their homeland. Determination and enthusiasm carry them in waves and pretty much as soon as they arrive, they roll up their sleeves, start rebuilding the city walls and lay the foundation for the new temple. Donations are coming in, spirits are high, everything is going great, and then…the Samaritans get in the way.

We know by the time of Jesus, there is real animosity between Jews and Samaritans. But who are the Samaritans? Depending on whom you talk to, Samaritans trace their origins way back to the prophet Eli as found in First Samuel, or to the period of the Kings as descendants of Manasseh (Wikipedia). Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, there are still a little over 800 Samaritans living today. While Samaritans likely existed long before the exile, it’s likely that the rift between Jews and Samaritans widened and became entrenched during and after the exile.

Not all the inhabitants of Judah were forced into captivity during the Babylonian Exile. The poor, those who struggled, were left behind to keep some semblance of civilization intact and to tend the land. It would appear most of the Samaritans were left behind. So for almost 50 years, you have this population that remained in Judah, in Jerusalem, and they did their best to keep the home fires burning. It wasn’t easy. When the best and the brightest of a society are all kidnapped from among you, there’s a lot of regrouping and reorganizing that needs to happen. But at some point a survival instinct must have kicked in and they did what they needed to do. The Samaritans, as part of this remnant that never left, probably came to enjoy certain leadership roles in their communities and after 50 years of hard scrabble living, they took pride in the lives they were able to put back together again.

Life maybe wasn’t great, but things were stable, manageable. And then somewhat unexpectedly, you have this huge group of Jews return and start running rough shod over everyone who had been le